Saturday, 7 March 2015


Louise of Savoy (1476-1531) and Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549)

The death of Louis XII of France in 1515 created a dynastic situation which brought to the fore two women destined to play extraordinary roles in the political and cultural life of Europe. Because the Salic Law operated in France women were debarred from inheriting the crown. Louis left two daughters. Claude married Francis of Angouleme, a distant cousin who, as the nearest male relative of her father, became king as Francis I. The court now came under strong feminine influence but not from Queen Claude, who had few interests beyond her personal devotions. It was her mother-in-law and sister-in-law who became leading lights in French political and social life. Louise of Savoy was a shrewd and determined woman who was immersed in Renaissance culture. She passed on to her children her own love of learning and personally taught Francis Italian and Spanish. She was also politically astute and had brought her infant son to the royal court at the earliest opportunity to be reared among the younger members of the royal family. By the time that Francis became king he had become heavily dependent on his mother and, despite the protests of his councillors, regarded her as his chief adviser. Louise's political status was clearly established within months. When Francis set off on a military expedition, he appointed his mother to act as regent. Ten years later she again ruled in the king's name when he marched to Italy to contest the rights of the Emperor Charles V.

By this time the conflict between France and the Empire had become the dominant theme in European affairs and Louise took a leading role in the diplomatic life of the continent. Seeking to isolate Charles V, she concluded a peace treaty with Henry VIII of England (1525). More audaciously, she sent envoys to the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, urging him to divert Charles' attention by attacking imperial territory from the east. The result was a humiliating trouncing of imperial forces at Mohacs (1526). But in Italy, the war went badly for Francis, who was captured at the Battle of Pavia (1525). It was Louise who had to negotiate the terms of his release. But this only achieved a temporary lull in the ruinous contest between the two bellicose monarchs. By 1529 they both needed peace but neither would humiliate himself by seeking terms. Once again the rulers had to look to their womenfolk. It was Louise and Margaret of Austria, Charles' governor in the Netherlands, who drew up the terms of what came to be called the 'Ladies' Peace' (1529).

After the disaster at Pavia it was Francis' sister, Margaret, who took on the role of go-between. Her own husband had been mortally wounded in the battle and she nursed him through his last days. Then she made the long journey at breakneck speed to succour her brother and agree the terms for his release. This was proof positive of the strong bond between these siblings, a bond which helped to set the tone of the French court. In a remarkable move, Francis created his sister duchess of Berry which meant that, as a peer of the realm, she was, in effect, an 'honorary male', with power denied to all other French women.

Margaret was the cultural hub of the French court and her salon was the most famous in Europe. Her patronage extended to several of the leading scholars and writers of the day, including Rabelais and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, who first translated the Bible into French. She ventured into print herself - something almost unheard of for women at this time. Her writings ranged from devotional works to poems and plays and also the Heptameron, a collection of picaresque tales in the style of the Decameron.

This activity for a woman was noteworthy enough but what made it more so was that it occurred just as the Reformation tsunami was breaking across Europe. Margaret, as intellectually curious as she was devout, entered fully into the religious debate. She corresponded with several of the leading scholars of the day, notably with the French Protestant theologian, John Calvin. She gathered around her a coterie of free thinkers several of whom would have been persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities if they had not been under her protection. 

After the death of her first husband Margaret married Henry II of the buffer state of Navarre, between France and Spain. As the Reformation gathered pace her court at Nerac became a haven for advanced thinkers. In the 1530s the clashes between Catholics and Protestants became ever more violent but Margaret's court was a place where scholars of all stamps could co-exist. The queen, herself, displayed what was for those days a remarkable balance of personal devotional and doctrinal toleration. Margaret's beliefs were the foundation of the way she interpreted her role as queen. She walked freely among her people. She was approachable. And she particularly cared for the less fortunate of her subjects, founding hospitals and establishing other charities.

History books covering the early sixteenth century are replete with the martial exploits of Francis I and Charles V but the story of those years is far from complete without acknowledgement of the civilising influence of such remarkable royal women.

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